Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston talks about the Ravens' 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
CINCINNATI — The Ravens played the type of game Sunday that gets a head coach fired.
In a 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens were embarrassed and lethargic. In a word, they were pitiful. Just pitiful.
When a team turns in this kind of performance in the season finale and fails to go to the playoffs for the third time in four years, it's usually grounds for dismissal. That isn't expected to happen to coach John Harbaugh, but Sunday's loss sent out a warning signal.
He is now on the clock for next season.
The main characteristic of Harbaugh-coached teams during his nine years in Baltimore is that they play hard regardless of the circumstances. But that didn't happen Sunday.
It's impossible to say they quit because they never got started. They were down 20-3 at the half, and the only remaining question was what time the team flight landed in Baltimore so the Ravens could pack and go home for the offseason.
"I was disappointed with the execution," Harbaugh said. "We really didn't have the edge in the first half like we normally do. We ran the ball hard, we were finishing blocks — going hard in the routes. From an effort standpoint, the effort was there.
"On the emotional level, [the team] wasn't where it had been in the past. It has to do a lot with what happened last week."
In the locker room after the game the Ravens were careful talking about their performance. Nobody wanted to use the Q-word (quit), but it was clear the Ravens didn't recover from last week's last-minute loss that gave the victorious Piitsburgh Steelers the AFC North championship.
The Steelers not only took the championship, but also the Ravens' spirit.
"I wouldn't say effort was a problem," Ravens rookie left offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley said. "But you could see the intensity wasn't there on both sides. The game wasn't nearly as physical as it was when we last played them, but everyone still had to play hard, regardless if they were motivated or not."
And that's the problem. There has been speculation surrounding Harbaugh's future, and when players are aware of that, they play hard for the coach. But when they believe it's time for a coach to move on, they often shut it down.
They play like the Ravens played Sunday. The belief here is that Harbaugh's job is not in jeopardy, but the pathetic performance had to raise the eyebrow of owner Steve Bisciotti. Regardless of a win or loss, players should be professional.
They need to turn in strong efforts. Was the Ravens' lackluster performance a warning sign?
"That game last week did take a lot out of us, and there was nothing to play for but yourself," Ravens receiver Kamar Aiken said. "But I wouldn't say we didn't play hard. They just made more plays than we did."
True, but the Bengals were without starting middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, star wide receiver A.J. Green and running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. The Ravens made No. 3 running back Rex Burkhead (119 yards on 27 carries) look like Le'Veon Bell.
Worse yet, the same problems that have plagued this team all season were on display again Sunday. The Ravens' secondary couldn't cover as quarterback Andy Dalton completed 18 of 28 passes for 226 yards, and the Ravens' pass rush didn't get near Dalton in the first half.
Cincinnati was the third straight team to pound the Ravens' run defense at the end of the season.
"I feel like teams were able to spread us out, get us in smaller packages," Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. "The Eagles really started it with three- or four-receiver sets to get our smaller people in the game, and then we had trouble getting off blocks and executing."
The Ravens' offense was poor, as usual. They can't run the ball because they don't want to. Instead, they want to play small-ball and throw short passes. Flacco throwing to tight end Dennis Pitta has gotten old. Of Flacco's 49 passes Sunday, 16 were intended for Pitta.
If you really want to slow Flacco and the Ravens, play two-deep coverage with five underneath and the Ravens have no answers for it. A simple solution is to run the ball and force a safety to come up and play along the line of scrimmage, but the Ravens just prefer to dunk and dink.
They aren't successful in short yardage situations, and even their trick plays are terrible. The Ravens actually tried to run a screen to offensive lineman Alex Lewis on Sunday, and this guy hadn't played in several weeks because of an ankle injury.
But that's going to change next year. It would be surprising if the Ravens don't replace offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and it's possible that 67-year old defensive coordinator Dean Pees retires.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and assistant Eric DeCosta need to be accountable for the recent lack of draft success, and even Flacco will be on the hot seat after a subpar performance in 2016.
The Ravens could clean house if things go bad in 2017. But the main focus will be on Harbaugh. The one thing he had going was that his teams always played hard, but that's not the case anymore. After Sunday, you have to question that.